The laissez-faire ideology, which came closest to perfection in the 1950’s, evolved to serve the interests of the increasingly dominant capitalist class in London. Total government abstention from economic and social affairs was, and is, a contradiction in terms.
The mere existence of government, charged with public expenditures, currency regulation and the protection and administration of a certain structure of laws must influence economic and social life to some extent. Thus, the practical application of the idealized notion of laissez faire was really more concerned with the character of government intervention, and not the fact of it. And the role of government, according to classical political economy, was to create and maintain the best conditions for capitalism, under which the process of capital accumulation, [81 then regarded as basically self-regulating, could flourish. In this context, it is hardly surprising that the most important function of the state seldom came under fire in the public debate surrounding the institutionalization of ‘practical laissez faire.’
This function was the maintenance and fine[91 tuning of capitalist property relations, which layed down the rules of the capitalist economic system, and the maintenance of social stability in terms of these property relations. In most of the discussions regarding the abolition of old legislation or the introduction of new laws, this function of the state was not subject to question–indeed, it formed a datum against which the advisability of existing and proposed laws were judged. The state’s role as guardian of capitalist property relations, that is, of private property and the basic socio-economic institutions which defined people’s places in the economy and society, was not challenged. There were instances, however, in which more direct government intervention into the economy was called for and/or achieved.
In these cases, the laissez faire doctrine was selectively upheld or compromised in favour of the dominant class and to the detriment of the working class. Indeed, Lord Salisbury alluded to this state of affairs when in 1983 he wrote: “Laissez faire is an admirable doctrine; but it must be applied on [ll] both sides.” A detailed analysis of 19th century economic and social policy in these terms is beyond the scope of this thesis. However, two examples, which directly affected London’s development and its working-class housing problems, will be instructive in gaining an understanding of the prevailing ideological paradigm in terms of which housing problems were understood. The development of London’s railway network provides an example of how Zaissez faire ideology was severely compromised in the interests of the dominant class as a whole.
As we have already seen in Chapter 3, railway development was vital to the expansion of capital accumulation, and it necessitated a high level of government intervention, both for its very realization, and subsequently, for its rational organization. Without compulsory purchase powers, it is doubtful that many railway companies would have been able to acquire the necessary land; and without some government control over the placement of lines and termini, the overall network would have been chaotic, if not counterproductive. In these matters the State essentially acted as an arbitrator between the various sectors of the dominant class–in particular, the landed aristocracy, the railway promoters and the big capitalists.
It did not give railway companies a free hand to go about their operations, which were so important to the capitalists in general, nor did it outrightly reject the challenge to existing property relations, and to the power of the landed aristocrats, which compulsory purchase posed. Instead, the state took somewhat of a middle road by facilitating relatively organized railway development, which enhanced the potential for capital accumulation, in ways which respected the power of the landowners, by strict regulation and by granting high levels of compensation, regardless of the devastating effects of the schemes on the working class.
Thus, in this struggle to improve the economic efficiency of the city, the laws defining property relations in the land market were slightly modified, usually to the detriment of the working class, and government control over private economic activity was increased; but the changes did not seriously threaten the fundamental basis of these property relations, namely private property and market determination of compensation to landowners.
These compromises altered the relative power of, and had direct economic consequences for, certain social groups, but they essentially reflected the subservience of government to economy. On the other hand, the laissez faire dogma was usually upheld in reaction to demands for governmental or philanthropic intervention into the housing market to provide adequate accommodation for all members of the working class. Gareth Stedman Jones has succinctly labelled the dominant ideological paradigm which shaped official and philanthropic responses to working-class housing problems up to the 1980’s, with the word “demoralization.”
This paradigm was a relatively faithful extension of the principles of Zaissez faire into the field of housing. According to this theory, the basis of most working-class housing problems was moral, not structural. Slums were caused by their demoralized inhabitants who had failed to internalize and act upon socially-accepted capitalist values, such as disciplined labour, thrift, self help and temperance. The structural characteristics of the labour and housing markets and of the ‘sweated’ leasehold system, which I have argued trapped the working class in the centre and were the causes of slums, were seen by contemporary reformers as the outcomes of working-class demoralization.
It was assumed that the working class had effective control over the quality of their living environment. Thus the social and environmental evils of the slums were attributed to the personal psychological inadequacies of the victims, rather than to circumstances beyond their control. It was even argued the working-class poor chose to live in the congested, unsanitary slums of inner London because they preferred to spend their wages unwisely, on drinking or gambling instead of better housing, or because they shrewdly migrated to these areas to benefit from charitable handouts rather than subject themselves to painful labour. In this context, it is understandable that public health problems in slum districts, being more difficult to blame convincingly on individual slum dwellers and therefore more difficult to explain within the demoralization paradigm, were seen to be more legitimate and urgent areas of public concern than housing problems–that the exterior environment was seen to be more important than the interior.
Furthermore, seen through the distorting lens of the demoralization paradigm it was inevitable for housing reformers to argue that the only practical solution to working-class housing problems lay in educating the workers to inculcate the canons of capitalist morality, to learn the value of hard work, careful spending, thrift and self help. As Samuel Smiles put it in his celebrated book, Self Help (1959): “No Laws, however stringent, can make the idle industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober. Such reforms can only be effected by means of individual action, economy and self denial, by better habits, rather than by greater rights.”
There was little to be gained by the application of charitable or state aid to better house the working class. This would merely lead to an automatic rise in rents or fall in wages and would encourage mendicancy and further demoralization thereby exacerbating the problems rather than solving them. Indeed, indiscriminate public and private alms-giving was seen as an impor[171 tant cause of demoralization in the first place. What this amounted to was an argument that the state or the charities had no right to interfere with the essentially unproblematic operation of markets in essential commodities, such as housing, as this would subvert the effective operation of the land and labour markets thereby diminishing the rate of capital accumulation. Where such intervention was deemed to be absolutely necessary, usually because of the fear of working-class insurrection, it should be accomplished in ways which did not threaten the operation of these basic socio-economic institutions. Indeed, it should operate according to the rules of these institutions; in particular, it should produce a ‘fair’ return to the capital invested, not ‘give the workers something for nothing,’ and it should be permissive rather than mandatory.
For example, Octavia Hill, one of the foremost housing reformers of the day, told the 1982 Select Committee: “It is far better to prove that you can provide a tolerable tenement which will pay, than a perfect one which will not…. Give him by all means as much as you can for his money, but do not house him by charity, or you will house few but him, and discourage instead of stimulating others to build for the poor.”
And in 1983, she wrote that her approach, which is analysed in the following section of this chapter, did not “…contemplate for a moment the disastrous policy of attempting to supply by the aid of the community a necessary of life (such as lodging is) for the working classes… Let working people fit themselves for better wages….never let them accept a rate in aid of wages, whether in the form of houses, or of anything else.” Though the attitude of wealthy London to chronic poverty changed during the 1970’s, from one which saw poverty as the inevitable lot of the working class to a view that poverty only affected the unregenerate ‘residuum’ and would be eradicated by progress, demoralization was consistently evoked to explain why certain individuals and not others were poor or lived in slums.
In fact, their acceptance of the demoralization thesis increased during the early 1970’s due to the persistence of poverty and slums in the growing . prosperity and stability of the period. In sum, then, under the demoralization paradigm which dominated the housing reform movement of the day, the victim was blamed for the housing problems which he/she suffered. If environment played a part in creating housing problems, then it was a decidedly minor one. The paradigm fundamentally upheld the efficacy of capitalist market institutions, which I have argued were the real cause of working-class housing problems. The basically wrong assumption that the working class was in a position to control the quality of its residential environment led to ‘solutions’ which prescribed self-help and education.
Where public or private aid was deemed unavoidable, an adequate return on the money invested was imperative as charity generated further demoralization as it ran counter to the precepts of the immutable market institutions. The considerable ideological power of the demoralization paradigm of working-class housing problems needs to be emphasized. It was like a filter through which housing reformers and policy-makers saw the reality of workingclass housing problems. Its action was similar to that of a coloured filter through which a beam of white light is passed. If the filter is blue, then only blue light passes through it; the other six colours (wavelenghts) of the spectrum are absorbed by the filter.
Change the filter to a red one and only the red light passes through it. Thus the beam of white light, representing reality in this metaphor, can seem radically different depending through which colour filter (the paradigm) it is viewed. Furthermore, the filtering effect of the paradigm coloured not only the theoretical explanation and policy proposals, but the definition of the problems themselves. The notion that the definition of the problem was, or can be, objectively true, and was therefore indisputable, could only be upheld when viewed through the paradigmatic filter.
The imposition of an alternative paradigm, as is the case in this chapter, rapidly exposes the myth of such objectivity–the biased, subjective dimension of the demoralization thesis becomes obvious. As we shall see in the following section, the demoralization paradigm was an appropriate device for maintaining the status quo in relation to the housing plight of the working class. By covering up the structural causes of slums, it supported the interests of the dominant class which benefited directly or indirectly, from the impoverishment of the working class, for whom the situation worsened. Thus, this differential application of the laissez faire ideology in matters of public policy, consistently to the detriment of the working class, was a clear example of the subservience of the state to basic socio-economic institutions of the capitalist system, and to the dominant class whose interests the system served.
Far from improving the lot of the working class, the demoralization paradigm, by blaming structural contradictions on the psychological inadequacies of the victims, served the purpose of legitimating working-class suffering and exonerating the system which caused it. The Five Main Approaches Attempts to improve working class housing conditions from the 1930’s to the 1980’s took five main forms: street clearance, sanitary regulation and slum clearance were the official responses; model dwellings and the Octavia Hill system were the ‘philanthropic’ responses. Each of the approaches adhered to the laws of classical political economy as embodied in the demoralization paradigm, but in varying degrees.
Other proposals were made, and implemented, but on such a small scale that they made an insignificant impression on working-class housing problems during this period. Workmen’s fares were advocated as a solution to central area congestion as early as 1946. They were increasingly provided from the mid-1960’s onwards, but their use by the working class, as a means of escape to more spacious suburbs, remained negligible until the 1980’s, for reasons previously cited. New towns or ideal communities had an even older history but only began to make an impact towards the turn of the 19th century.
Starr-Bowkett building societies, which were established in the 1960’s in an attempt to extend homeownership to the working class by providing low-repayment, interest-free loans to the full value of a property, were popular but hardly made an impression on the housing problem and petered out [231 in the 1990’s. Thus, the main thrust, which the five approaches represented, was directed towards the amelioration of slum conditions in the central area. We may now consider each approach in chronological order.